Ignited Artists: "We're here to win, and to win together"
Scott Foe on the "no dead monkeys" policy that led to its debut, Barbaric, and why every member of staff will receive an equal profit share
Three years is a long time for a new studio to last before releasing a game, and yet that was the stretch between Ignited Artists' foundation and just the announcement of its debut project.
The talent involved at the studio - a founding team of three industry veterans with experience at Activision, Sega, Nokia, EA, Kixeye and more - attracted investment from Sega Networks in February 2015. However, the time since that deal has been shrouded in silence, broken when Ignited Artists finally unveiled its co-op roguelike Barbaric this summer.
According to Scott Foe, the studio's chief product officer and one of its three founders, that apparent lack of activity was an illusion. In fact, the period that elapsed between Ignited Artists coming together in June 2014 and showing its hand this year was down to another, now abandoned concept,
"When a baby monkey dies, the mother will carry the corpse around for quite a while before she lets go," Foe says, exercising his evident gift for vivid analogy. "That's how more junior studio leadership will treat a game that it's clear isn't going to go anywhere. The studio leadership will just be like, 'No, we're going to launch this game.'
"We have a no dead monkeys policy at our studio, and we've let a corpse go already. This is actually our second baby"
"We have a no dead monkeys policy at our studio, and we've let a corpse go already. This is actually our second baby. When we felt this was the one, we made the announcement, we took the steps."
Foe is speaking at Casual Connect, a conference nominally focused on a category of games out of step with Ignited Artists' vision for Barbaric. It is a co-operative roguelike with a cast of eight playable characters, the available art depicting a gloomy, fire-lit world of stone walls and dirt floors. On the surface much feels familiar, but Foe seems confident that Barbaric's mechanics and construction will offer something genuinely new - even "disruptive".
"We lead with 'dungeon crawler', because that's the thing it's most comparable to," he says. "You can say that Cirque du Soleil is a circus; yes, it is a circus, but it's a not like any circus you've ever seen. This is like that for dungeon crawlers. It's all the fun of EverQuest or Elder Scrolls, boiled down into 30-minute play sessions. It's meant to be played at work with your friends, Friday night with your friends - a lifestyle dungeon crawler."
The core of that promise is a system that can generate a number of possible adventures so large it immediately invites accusations of hyperbole. It is an accusation that Foe is ready to accept, and also refute. Barbaric has been in development for 20 months, he says, and that time was spent crafting an experience that lends itself to the tastes and behaviour of "the Twitch generation."
"I'm the world's number one fan of hyperbole; this is not hyperbole," he says. "We developed with streamers in mind, and we want to be able to support people who are going to stream six days a week, for hours a day. In addition to developing with the community [through Early Access], we want to develop with our streamers."
Speaking to Foe, it's clear that the confidence he has in Barbaric's concept is firmly rooted in a belief in its commercial appeal. Ignited Artists is an independent studio, he says, but he draws a distinction between the ideas behind his own company and those he associates with the term "indie."
"When I think of the term 'indie' I think of people making the game they love," he says. "But it's not just the game you love; it has to be the game you love, the game you can do, and the game that's going to make money; you've got to hit the target right in the centre.
"Say this thing goes Diablo; everybody is going to be very happy, but they're going to be just as happy as our CEO"
"We need that commercial bent because we want to keep the lights on in the studio. We have over 30 people working on this project; some of them have children, some of them have pets, and we think about those too. It's not just the people sitting beside you; it's the other people in their lives.
"Because we have these obligations, we have to be fairly mercenary about product management strategy, market strategy, communications strategy. If you don't have a strategy you can't fail, because you were never trying to accomplish anything in the first place."
Barbaric is due to launch in Early Access before the end of the year, and Ignited Artists intends to support the product until a full release and far beyond. Indeed, Foe and his fellow co-founder Alessandro Tento, the company's CEO, aim to build a great product by sustaining and rewarding a great team, rejecting what Foe terms the "ivory tower mentality" that leaves too many employees feeling inconsequential and undervalued.
"Everyone [at Ignited Artists] gets the same profit-sharing bonus cheque," he says. "Say this thing goes Diablo; everybody is going to be very happy, but they're going to be just as happy as Alessandro Tento. I tell people every day that this is a stadium, not a clubhouse. We're here to win, and to win together."
Early investment gave Ignited Artists "plenty of runway" to develop both its principles and its product, but with Barbaric now out in the open it won't be long before we get the measure of these big words and big ideas. Given the founding team's long track records, I suggest, it might be possible to bring in a publishing partner to help navigate the increasingly treacherous PC market.
"We want the same sea change that happened to Hollywood in the Thirties"
"If we have to work on something that is not our own intellectual property, or if we have to take publisher bank to keep the lights on, then we'll have failed in our mission as a company," he says. "Think about it: if a publisher hires you to make a game, they won't want profit-sharing with every single person, regardless of title, who worked on the game."
Indeed, Ignited Artists is so devoted to this idea it is encoded in its very name; a reference to United Artists, the company founded by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and D.W. Griffiths, as they sought to wrest control of their creative work and financial futures from the big Hollywood studios. Again, big words and big ideas, but Foe has no trouble highlighting a link to an all too common story in the games business.
"We want the same sea change that happened to Hollywood in the Thirties," he says, "when the power went out of the hands of the accountants and into the hands of the creative talent.
"You see it all the time - I've seen it so many times in this industry - where you have a studio, and they're like, 'We're going to do work for hire, and we're gonna make money of of that, and we're going to make our own IP when we have a war-chest built up.' You can find a few edge cases where that has succeeded, but mostly it fails. The value framework you build for servicing a publisher is not the framework you need when you launch your own IPs.
"We want to be the reverse of that. Our entire company is tuned to making our own entertainment properties, and having our own processes and practices that set us up to succeed. Doing something for someone else? That might not even work."
GamesIndustry.biz attended Casual Connect USA with assistance from the organiser.